Miss & Carry: Towards a Theology of Unrealized Motherhood

Hannah Helms

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Miss & Carry SL

miss and carry post

The first time I got pregnant it was unplanned. My husband, Ben, and I were living in my parents’ guest bedroom at the time, in the middle of our first year of marriage. We were both in-between jobs and graduate school and not having any idea what we were doing. However, the prospect of a baby-to-be was so grounding – in the midst of our uncertainty was the promise of new life and a goal for us to focus on. We waited until I was all of eight weeks along before we made the announcement to my entire extended family on the first day of our annual camp out-reunion at the Jedidiah Smith State Redwood Park.

The day after the announcement I woke up with a tiny spot of blood in my underwear. I ignored it, refused to give in to the worry that sat at the edges of my mind. I mentally reviewed all the normal pregnancy symptoms that I could think of. Spotting is normal. Nothing to worry about here.

But by the time noon rolled around I was sitting at the river’s edge trying to breathe my way through cramps (that were really contractions), and blinking away tears behind my sunglasses, because by now I knew that something was wrong. My mom came and sat beside me and asked me what was going on. I told her that I was pretty sure that I was having a miscarriage.

We walked back to our campsite and someone ran up the river to tell my husband. Ben met me at camp, and we laid on the air mattress in my parents’ tent and cried ourselves to sleep. The next morning we went home, made an appointment with the doctor, and cried to each other off and on as I continued to miscarry throughout the rest of the week. Then it was over.

Not everybody miscarries like this – in the middle of the woods, sans medical intervention, making dozens of trips back and forth to state park public toilets. I know women who have lost their babies before their bodies told them, who found out on an ultrasound, who underwent surgery. Either way, it’s utterly devastating. I would never wish a miscarriage on anyone.

Miscarriage is such a lonely type of loss, invisible for the most part, and not commonly talked about. But what I desperately needed in those days and weeks and months after was someone to tell me that I wasn’t alone. I needed a voice of solidarity. Eventually I found just that. Once I was able to say the words out loud, that I’d had a miscarriage, a chorus of “me-toos” rose up. Other women – my peers, my mother’s friends, friends of friends had all experienced this particular kind of loss.

In the midst of those stories were others as well – women who had been trying for weeks and months and years to get pregnant, with a collection of negative pregnancy tests to show for their efforts. Women who had sought out answers beyond pregnancy tests, and been told that they could not and would not get pregnant – not now, not ever. Women who were pushing through the red tape and piles of paperwork to get approved to foster or adopt, waiting for the phone call from the social worker.

I have met women who have tried to mother their children to the best of their efforts, but who have lost them to drugs or crime or abusive relationships. I have encountered the terrifying grief of mothers who have lost their children – they raised them, watched them grow, and then had to bury them.

I did not anticipate that my search for solidarity after miscarriage would reveal something this big – a collective grief that eclipsed my own singular experience. I also did not anticipate that the comfort I found in these stories, in the familiar ache of something so desperately craved and lost, would be incomplete in helping me move through my grieving process. I spent so much time carrying around the stories of these women, and my own story of grief and loss, but something was still missing – an unmet need tucked into all those layers.

After much consideration and reflection, I realize that the missing piece is this – we need a better theology of loss around this topic, or more specifically, a theology that addresses the grief and pain of unrealized motherhood.

The church has a lot to say about mothers, with the emphasis being that motherhood should be something that women aspire to. I’ve heard praises sung for mothers, and their efforts, and heard the stories of mothers in the Bible lifted up. But I have yet to hear a sermon that talks about the hardships that mothers face beyond laundry and wrangling toddlers.

Where would the church even start to come up with a theology of the grief that accompanies the subject of motherhood?

As with most things, the best place to start is at the beginning, in Genesis 3:16:

To the woman he said,

I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
in pain you shall bring forth children.
Your desire shall be for your husband,
and he shall rule over you.”

I’ve always assumed that the first part of this verse was clearly translated to refer to physical discomfort during labor and delivery. I’ve seen it skimmed over and dismissed in favor of the second two lines, or have heard it jokingly referred to by women bemoaning their menstrual cycles. Since miscarrying, I’ve experienced pregnancy and have been through labor and delivery, and the physical pain that I felt then was nothing compared to heartbreak and grief that I experienced with my miscarriage.

It turns out that this translation (and many others) does a poor job of capturing what is expressed in the original Hebrew. The first use of the word “pain” in this passage can also be translated to mean labor (as in work), hardship, or sorrow. It does not refer specifically to physical discomfort. The second use of the word “pain” can also be translated differently, as either hurt or offense, or toil and hardship. The word “childbearing” is understood to refer to conception or pregnancy, rather than the event of labor and delivery. Likewise, the phrase “bring forth children” also refers to more than the event of childbirth – the wording here means “beget”, which refers to the process of generating children and bringing them up.

Given all of this, it would make more sense if the first portion of this verse read,

I will surely multiply the hardship and sorrow associated with conception and pregnancy, and the process of generating children and bringing them up will involve hardship, work, and emotional pain.”

When we miss the full meaning of this passage, we, as a church, miss out on creating a space that allows for the hard things associated with motherhood. Women miss out on being fully known and understood by their spouses, families, and friends. Men miss out on the opportunity to walk alongside and carry the weight of this grief with the women in their lives.

So much is missed when the voices of women are ignored in the translation of scripture. In the case of this passage from Genesis, neglecting to take into account the lived experiences of women results in a stunted understanding of the text. If our aim as followers of Christ is to know God and to make him known, we need as thorough a knowledge of the Word as possible, and we need to add female voices to these conversations.

In the struggle for gender equality in the church it is easy to focus on the latter half of this verse and the brokenness that has occurred between men and women. It is easy to ignore the first part because motherhood can be challenging territory for those of us who identify as egalitarian.

In an effort to move away from the idea that motherhood is the end all and be all of a Christian woman’s value and purpose, we may inadvertently minimize its significance for many women. Perhaps even more significant than these things is that when we focus all of our efforts on redeeming a patriarchal system, we can overlook the fact that a key portion of the female experience needs redeeming as well.

My hope is that as the community of believers we will learn to mourn with those who mourn and share in carrying the burdens of unrealized motherhood.

Hannah Helms

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32 Comments

  • Hannah, your message is both thoughtful and important. Yes, there is a “underground” of many generations of women who have miscarried. I am one of them (and, I am a generation older than you as I had your husband, Ben, as a student in a class or two I taught in his graduate program!). It is a unique connection to share with so many.

    I was prepared to tell my husband of our first pregnancy after the guests left his surprise 29th birthday party. The surprise within the surprise was that I began spotting as the party began and by the time it was over, I had spent quite a bit of time trying to staunch a heavier flow of blood. Bill learned of our pregnancy and miscarriage in the same conversation. Within a year, we were blessed by a fullterm pregnancy that resulted in a healthy baby girl and, four years later, I carried our son to term. Yet, 34 years later, I still remember the loss of our first child each year when we celebrate Bill’s birthday. The pain is less but the memory is strong. And, my heart is more tender to the miracle of pregnancy and birth, as well as infertility and loss, as a result of our experience.

    Thank you for sharing your story and your tender feedback to those who have posted here. Perhaps someday we will meet. Please give my greetings to Ben.

    • Hi Anita – Thank you for reading, and for sharing your story as well. Your words – “the pain is less but the memory is strong” – perfectly sum up the place that I am with my grief at this time.

      I showed your comment to Ben. He was excited to see that you had read this, and says hello 🙂

  • Ruth – thank you for reading. I believe that your comment about the impact on singles is right on point. I think that depending on the church that someone is in, the pendulum swings between exalting motherhood or downplaying its importance. Either way, this approach can invalidate the experience of both women and men, single or married, in the church.

    It sounds like you are also getting at the greater need in all of this as well – that we as a church body need to figure out how to create a space to allow for grief and sharing around this topic.

    I’d be interested to hear what it would look like – on a practical level for people in various seasons of life – to move toward a theology of unrealized motherhood.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts here. You don’t write from the viewpoint of single women here, but a stronger theology on this matter would help them too. Some churches try to avoid pressuring/idealising marriage in recognition of singles in the congregation, but they often miss the longing that’s also borne by many single people concerning parenthood.

    Good theology will help. But sharing and listening to each others’ stories will help too. The stories may be hard to tell and challenging to hear, especially when it raises doubts about God and suffering. But this exchange will cause us all to grow together to a more relevant and mature faith, and that’s got to be worth pursuing.

  • Beautifully said. It is such a lonely experience that I didn’t want to talk about at the time, but knowing other’s had walked the same road was a huge sense of encouragement. I love how you elucidated Gen 3:16 as it is much more comprehensive than the typical translation, providing room to better understanding our struggle as women.

    • Thank you, Holly! I felt similarly – it was so awful that I couldn’t put words to it, and didn’t really want to, but found a lot of comfort in just the presence of other women who had also miscarried.

  • Hannah – your words spoke to me in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep. One sleepless night after another since having my daughter a year ago. I too had a miscarriage before her, but now the hard work and stress of struggling with sleep after her birth sometimes overshadow the joy, and I needed to hear that this can be redeemed too.

    • Hi Sarah – I’m glad that you were encouraged by this post. Your comments stir up something that I didn’t have time or space to address in this article – the erroneous idea that having a healthy pregnancy after a miscarriage or other type of maternal loss somehow completely heals the grief associated with a miscarriage. I too have had children following my miscarriage, but their births did not negate the grief over losing that first baby – that healing process has occurred independently of my healthy pregnancies. I do hope that you are able to move forward toward healing of your own.

  • Thank you for this. I was just chatting online today with someone about this topic with a male friend who is also without children. Two miscarriages and chronic illness for both my husband and me in the midst of the Quiverfull craze was not easy, and some of the most painful responses have come from Christian women. (No one ever shamed or questioned my husband which I find all too telling. No babies meant my shame and my sin to those who fell into that trap of thinking.) I’ve even been told that I caused the miscarriage because, deep in my heart, I didn’t want to embrace my own child. ??? Didn’t they understand that I was already punishing myself by questioning what might have happened or what I might have eaten or done that may have harmed my unborn promise?

    Unrealized motherhood takes on a double meaning, but grieving and healing have proven that God’s grace throughout my life has been more than sufficient. I still don’t go to church on mother’s day, but I take comfort in Isaiah’s words to sing and burst into song as the barren woman who has never given birth. More shall be the children of the desolate — and God has never left me so.

    From the poet Padraic Pearce:

    O wise men, riddle me this:
    What if the dream come true?What if the dream come true?
    And if millions unborn shall dwell
    In the house that I shaped in my heart,
    the noble house of my thought?

    May it be the hope of all who face unrealized motherhood and realize the compassion of a God who knows what it is like to lose a Son.

    • Cindy – It grieves me to read this and to think of the pain that your community must have caused you and your husband. Your comments do point out several things that I think shouldn’t be forgotten in this conversation. First, that miscarriage, infertility, and other types of maternal loss are something that women experience along with their husbands. It’s just as important for men to have a solid theology of this type of loss as it is for women. Secondly, you bring to light the fact that we as a church need to be mindful of the the way that we can alienate women who need compassion, with both our words and the way that we choose to celebrate motherhood. Lastly, you make the excellent point that God knows what it is like to lose his Son. I find that in itself to be immensely comforting. Thank you for reading and thank you for sharing!

  • Hannah, I appreciate your expanded translation of the Hebrew text from Genesis. And I have had four miscarriages, too. Yes to all of this.

    • Elizabeth – I am so sorry for your losses. Thank you for reading. Laura Ziesel has an even more in depth analysis of this scripture on her blog if you are interested. The link is in her comment below.

  • There are aspects of baby loss that are so difficult to deal with that we, individuals and the church,that it is simpler to not think about the whole topic. How do you talk about the loss of a person that you never had the chance to meet, but was such a part of your life that their being changed yours forever.It is a topic so deeply sad and personal that it is easier to file it far away. But when it is talked about, the grace of our Father’s love becomes as comforting as the imagined hugs from the children who slipped away. (The organization, Saying goodbye, part of the Mariposa Trust, has video that is pure gold. Great start.)

    • Hi Laurie – I agree. It can be so difficult to find the words to describe such a unique type of grief, but so healing to talk about it once the words can be found. Thank you for sharing this resource as well!

  • Hannah, thank you for sharing your experience and for a beautiful contemplation! There are many truths lost and perspectives withheld when one half of the church does all of the teaching and expounding of Scripture. I’ve always seen Genesis 3 as very deep and profound. We, as the church, do need to go back and dig deeper and look more intensely at it. It will help us be more compassionate and loving toward one another. Thank you for being a voice. God bless you.

    • Glad to help you two connect! Laura, I hope you will consider writing us a summary post on your analysis of Genesis 3:16a – or even a series!

    • Laura – I just read through your the piece on your blog. It is so affirming to know that others have read through this verse in depth and derived the same meaning from the text. When I first told Kate that I wanted to write a piece about miscarriage she mentioned your thesis. I’m excited to connect with you!

  • Thank you for this. I’m in the middle of preaching a series on spiritual motherhood, and this is an important reminder.

    Also, as a mom who has miscarried and is also raising children, this struck very close to home. Again, thank you.

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